In 2008, Curlin, the reigning Horse of the Year, attempted to win back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Classics when he flew to California to compete over Santa Anita’s synthetic track. After the big chestnut colt could do no better than fourth against the European Raven’s Pass on the Pro-Ride surface, owner Jess Jackson became allergic to “the fake stuff” and never let one of his best horses run on a synthetic track again. Because of this, his champion filly Rachel Alexandra would have no reason to run in Calfornia, where the then-undefeated Zenyatta reigned supreme; just another reason these two female superstars never met face-to-face. Zenyatta went on to win the 2009 edition of the Breeders’ Cup Classic at the same track against a field that included the American champion turf horse, a champion 3-year-old dirt horse, and a pair of champion European turf horses. Though the synthetic surface created an advantage for European horses, who could transfer easier from running on the grass, the Pro-Ride was a nightmare for traditional dirt horses and gave them no advantage running in the World Championships in their own country. Not a single horse that called dirt its home won a Breeders’ Cup race over those two years, when the World Championships were run over a synthetic surface.
But after Santa Anita was forced to cancel several race days, when the Pro-Ride failed to drain properly, and no statistics were able to prove the surface was safer than traditional dirt, the decision was made to reinstall a traditional dirt track after four years of hassling and millions spent trying to fix the problems with the synthetic surfaces. The new track is made of a different mix of all-natural dirt, sand, and clays than the initial dirt surface that warranted a change to synthetics. If the new track, which only opened for dirt training for the first time this past Monday since its installation, has no perceivable problems, it will renew the tie between East and West Coast horses, their connections, and the road to the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup. As synthetic tracks had shaken a rift between East and West reminiscent of their rivalry during Seabiscuit’s era, much will be stirred in the game. For the latest example, trainer Steve Asmussen is actually stabling a string of 30 horses in California; that’s sort of like spotting a penguin in the middle of the desert.
With trainers mixing up their locations, this means that the snowbirds who usually haul their charges south to Florida and Louisiana might instead troupe their new blood out to California. As California hasn’t had a reputation of late for supporting a tremendous division of horses (outside of a notable few), this will change the face of California racing, making those races for prospective Derby hopefuls mean more in the Road to Roses, when the Santa Anita Derby’s reputation as a major prep race for the Kentucky Derby was beginning to tarnish. Instead of limiting dirt horses to the Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, and Arkansas Derby, now horses out West can prep on the same surface that the biggest race of their lives will be run on, which only makes sense tactically.
The surface change may also mean big things in the future for Santa Anita. While the Breeders’ Cup World Championships was being hosted in California in 2008 and 2009, the climate and daylight factor was universally praised by horsemen and fans, and there was talk of making Santa Anita the permanent site for the Breeders’ Cup. The biggest problem standing in the way of this was the synthetic main track; now that this obstacle has been removed, there is a more realistic chance that the track could be the future permanent site for the World Championships. Though Churchill Downs installed a state-of-the-art lighting system that enabled this year’s races to be run under the lights, it’s hard to argue against the warmer weather and ample daylight California offers in the first week of November.
With the term “synthetic specialist” hopefully sailing off into the land of Obsolete, the face of California racing is about to make a drastic change. For the first time since 2007, the Santa Anita Handicap will be returning to tradition, run over the same surface as Seabiscuit, John Henry, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid. While nearby Hollywood Park and Del Mar will keep their synthetic main tracks (for now), California’s mandate that all of the state’s tracks have a synthetic surface is now broken. The rift will now take place in the state itself, and horsemen will be forced to make decisions when the racing season changes from Hollywood to Santa Anita, and switch from its dirt surface to the Polytrack at Del Mar. It’s perceivable that some horses will ship out of state instead of venturing onto the synthetic surfaces in their same state, just as some horses that love Churchill Downs’s dirt track will never run over Keeneland’s Polytrack, their trainers opting to ship them to New York or Monmouth in New Jersey to keep their runners on traditional dirt instead.
The switch to a new dirt surface will give Santa Anita an advantage this spring, and the hope is the track’s facelift will also lure a new level of competition to its big races. It’s more likely, now than ever, we may see a Kentucky Derby winner come out of California; as the state’s Road to the Roses hasn’t produced a Derby winner since Giacomo, they are certainly due one.